Has UTEP Football Really Turned a Corner & Is El Paso Ready?
There are plays that change seasons and even programs, but rarely has one play challenged the mindset of an entire fan base. Until Saturday night in the Sun Bowl.
Over the years, UTEP football fans have learned to the play the odds. Hard to lead with your heart when it's been stepped on that many times. Blind faith keeps you from seeing the score.
So, when Middle Tennessee blew through the Miners to earn a 2nd-and-goal from the seven-yard line with just over a minute left, El Paso's inner bookie went to work.
Likelihood of the Blue Raiders being held out of the end zone? Under 20-percent.
Likelihood of UTEP's offense being explosive enough to muster a game-winning drive? Please. Just be sure the beer's cold at the tailgate.
And then: Jameel Erving.
MTSU quarterback Austin Grammer had made timely throws and gashing runs on the Miners' defense throughout the game. The sophomore had already run for more than 100 yards and had just completed a 27-yard gut-punch of a pass to Marcus Henry at the UTEP eight-yard line; escaping pressure at the last second, as he had all night, like he was an air bubble in a tube of water -- squeeze here and he moves there.
After a one-yard run, Grammer rolled left on a naked bootleg. Having proven dangerous when left alone, UTEP sent Erving as a spy to contain the playmaker. The senior DB was left unblocked and started closing fast, forcing Grammer to pass.
But Erving got his fingertips on the ball. The pass would not be complete.
But then Erving got a hand on the ball and it stayed in the air. Then, falling forward, Erving got both hands underneath the football just before it touched the turf, spun his body and tucked it in for the interception.
And the oddsmakers cheered.
UTEP 24, Middle Tennessee 21, and the Miners assure themselves of one of the five bowl bids locked in for Conference USA teams.
That impossible play may prove impossible to ignore at home, too. Combining pride and playmaking to pull a win from almost-certain defeat is rare. It sometimes happens for the Alabamas and Florida States of the world.
Though UTEP is far from Power 5 conference status, to see it happen for the Miners is meaningful. It reveals a character in Sean Kugler's team that shines a lot more brightly than we're used to. Bright enough to make El Paso wince. We've seen the flash in the pan here and there, but real character runs a little deeper than that. And lasts a little longer.
It also means El Paso might have to come to grips with Kugler, who is no Mike Price when it comes to rallying local support but is showing he knows what he's doing in his first head coaching job.
I've actually heard from people who blame Kugler and his demeanor for the lack of attendance in the Sun Bowl. Honestly, I think his pro rassler's visage and that lantern jaw scares some people.
But winning cures all. Kugler is a coach who believes in cutting away distraction, and to him ringmaster isn't in the job description. If the Miners are able to keep moving forward, El Pasoans will trade their parlay cards for tickets.
UTEP is 7-5 and has assured itself of the first winning season in El Paso in nine years. The Miners will go bowling and get all the extra practice time that goes with it, too.
In just his second year at his alma mater, Sean Kugler will have a chance to do something that Price and Gary Nord and his old head coach, UTEP Director of Athletics Bob Stull, never did -- win the Miners first bowl game since 1967.
What are the odds?